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Gator Bowl Preview: This is Actually Happening

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Or “There and Back Again: An Improbable Knight’s Tale”

Syndication: Florida Times-Union Corey Perrine / USA TODAY NETWORK

In a New York suburb there lived a knight. Not a boring, master plan suburb, filled to the ends of minivans and McMansions suburb, nor a dry, sandy, suburb in wherever Wake Forest is. It was Piscataway and that meant comfort.

This Knight didn’t plan on doing much this holiday season. He had a nice time sharpening his sword and brushing his scarlet horse after an autumn of battle, but then a plague happened, a demon called forth an opponent, and before the Knight knew what was happening, he was on a plane to Jacksonville.

I’ve taken this schtick about as far as I can, but I think Tolkien would appreciate the improbable adventure our merry band of Scarlet Knights have gone on to get to this point.

Since inventing the sport a few centuries back (what? You think I’m going to write a Rutgers football article and not point that out?), Rutgers has been to 10 bowls of minor to middling gravitas:

Source: Wikipedia

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Iowa State Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

From Rutgers’ first bowl, a loss against Arizona State in the Garden State Bowl with the legendary Frank Burns & Co. in 1978, to a satisfying with over Iowa State in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl in 2011, to a blowout win over North Carolina in the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl in Kyle Flood’s 3rd bowl game (I know, I was surprised too), Rutgers has had some memorable ones.

They’ve never been to anything like this.

New Year’s Bowl. Top-20 opponent. National audience. Extraordinary circumstances.

Welcome to the 2021 Gator Bowl.

Let’s break it down.

How We Got Here

In short: Chris Ash.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Rutgers at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I know, I was surprised too.

The reason we’re here is academics, and that is awesome.

In an era of increasingly businesslike approaches to college football, it is absolutely fantastic that the 5-7 team with the best APR in the country - a measure of academic progress - got the call up to the big game. Our cousin site On the Banks breaks it down masterfully.

When Greg Schiano took over the program a few years back after years of sub-100 yard passing games and blowout losses, we all knew he was going to bring the program great results, great recruiting classes, and prestigious bowls. We didn’t think it was going to happen this year, yet here we are. However, the credit doesn’t go to Greg (well, the 5 wins in the toughest division of the toughest conference in college football do).

The credit goes to this guy:

Rutgers Introduce Steve Pikiell Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images

Chris Ash took over a program from Kyle Flood that had some discipline issues. Also some secret agent issues. While the results on the field weren’t what anyone was hoping for, the results in the classroom were spectacular. The APR is a lookback metric, so the number this year is based on the hard work Coach Ash, his academic support staff, and the players put in at one of the world’s finest universities.

The X’s and O’s

If these two teams were meeting under standard circumstances, with the same amount of prep time and without the last minute surprise factor working against Rutgers, you might have hope for a good game. At a glance, Wake Forest played a pretty soft schedule in the ACC, doesn’t really have much interest in defense, and quite frankly don’t really resemble actual demons on the field.

Sure, they made the ACC Championship, but Rutgers won as many conference championship games as Wake Forest this year. Yeah, the top 20 wins over NC State and Pitt are impressive, but running up the score on Old Dominion and Norfolk State isn’t, and the one common opponent shows how closely these teams can stack up on any given Saturday (or Friday). The Demon Deacons took overtime to dispatch the hapless Orange and they needed a preposterous 3 TDs from A.T. Perry to do it.

Conversely, Rutgers beat their sad sack ex-Big East rivals 17-7 in a game that felt in control early in the second half, which is what you’d expect against some mid-major team from upstate New York that hasn’t been relevant since Donovan McNabb reinvented the position in the 1900’s.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

So, what I’m saying is there’s a chance Rutgers makes this a game. If the defense can produce some turnovers and a combination of Noah Vedral and Gavin Wimsatt can lead the RU offense to new heights, Rutgers’ special teams, lead by Adam Korsak, the best dang punter in the country (give me net punting average over gross any day, Ray Guy Award punks), can flip the field and the outcome.

Rutgers v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

That said, once we look a little closer at the numbers, courtesy of the wonderful stats folks at Football Outsiders, we can see what a tall task that is:

Rutgers vs Wake Forest Football Outsiders Statistics

Rating Explanation Wake Forest National Rank Rutgers National Rank
Rating Explanation Wake Forest National Rank Rutgers National Rank
FEI Per-Possession scoring advantage vs avg opponent 0.51 22 -0.26 88
OFEI Per-Posession offense advantage vs avg opponent 1.01 11 -0.77 118
DFEI Per-Posession defense advantage vs avg opponent -0.03 60 0.04 52
ALS Expected losses by an average team against schedule 6.84 23 6.32 50

Of the suite of analytics that FO offers, these four stats are the most eye opening. Overall, it paints a picture that Rutgers is an average football team that plays pretty good defense and struggles on offense - this passes the eyeball test. It also shows that independent of perceived cupcake schedule, Wake Forest is a very good team with an elite offense.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Boston College Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Wake’s FEI (basically like a team-wide +/- like in basketball) is .51, which is good for the 22nd best in the country. Not bad at all. Rutgers comes in at 88 with a -.26 which is a massive improvement over years past, but can also be attributed to playing against murders’ row in the Big Ten East.

The stats adjusted by competition is where we see the real problem. Against an average opponent, Wake has a 1.01 offensive rating, good for 11th in the heckin’ country. That’s truly elite and again, it passes the eyeball test. This team is very good on offense and generates oodles of explosive plays. Rutgers comes in at 118th, which is surprisingly bad for those who’ve watched the team put together a relatively cogent product on the field this year. It may be the fact that the RU faithful have watched some historically bad offenses the past few years and now watching something that’s only below average is a delight.

I think the most telling stat is ALS though. It shows us that these teams play a pretty even schedule. An average team goes about 6-6 against both schedules. If we dive into the full stats page we can see that a good team goes about 8-4 against those schedules and an elite team goes about 10-2.

The bottom line here? Rutgers is an average college football team playing Wake Forest, a good, maybe elite football team.

If we including the fact that Rutgers pulled off a miracle just to be in Florida and fielding a full roster, the odds of a Rutgers victory get into “wild upset” territory.

What If They Win?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

But isn’t that the fun part?

What if Rutgers wins?

What if the defense gets a few turnovers? What if Korsak does his Korsak thing and pins Wake Forest deep on every possession? What if Noah Vedral puts together another 400-yard masterpiece like he did against Michigan? What if Gavin Wimsatt comes in and saves the day? What if the defense plays like it did against Syracuse (7 points allowed), Illinois (14 points), or Indiana (3 points)?

Maryland v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

What if half the Wake Forest team comes down with Covid the day of? Nobody is wishing for that to happen, but in the bowl landscape of 2021, it’s hardly the least likely outcome.

What if this underdog team that got here through grit and grind in the classroom pulls of a historic upset while the nation watches?

This is why we watch. This is why we care. This is why film options will be signed by the final whistle if RU pulls it off, because this story writes itself. The scrappy team that perseveres through a global pandemic because of luck, adhering to sound medical advice, and academic achievements at a prestigious university? Come on people, the Disney channel execs are already penciling in Zac Effron as Noah Vedral here.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In closing, the fact that Rutgers made it to the game at all is a momentous achievement and a testament to the fact that the Big Ten is the one conference above all (okay, maybe except the Ivy League) that truly values academic integrity. If it wasn’t going to be Rutgers in this game, Illinois was a few APR Points behind. Let’s enjoy a game that most of us probably shouldn’t have a rooting interest in and maybe see one of the great all-time football stories unfold in real time.